The 2023 Pirelli Calendar celebrates the muses who have inspired photographer Emma Summerton and, more broadly, the remarkable power, passion and talent of women
Chinese model He Cong radiates warmth and a type of calm that puts everyone at ease. Arriving at the London studio for her Pirelli Calendar shoot, she greeted all with a beaming smile.
She has what photographer Emma Summerton, who has worked with the model before, describes as “kindness and empathy”. And these qualities inspired Summerton to cast He Cong as The Sage in her Love Letters to the Muse-themed Cal.
An inspired wonderland
For the shoot, the Hunan-born model sat at a dressing table in front of a round mirror, wearing a light-pink satin jacket and pale yellow stockings while trying on a large black hat by Harris Reed. Next to the mirror was a mask, along with a model gold finch and eggs and toads tools: motifs from nature that appear throughout the Calendar.
“My muse is The Sage,” He Cong said. “And she’s thinking about all the people around her. She gives advice to everyone.”
Asked if she felt she shared those traits, He Cong said; “I’m trying to learn from The Sage, like being patient, focused and kind.”
The model likened her experience on set to being in an “incredible wonderland” and described Summerton as a “dramatic and very powerful photographer”.
“Emma is very talented... she always makes me feel very comfortable when shooting. So I’m very excited to see what story we will create on set. Every time I work with her, she knows what she wants. And also she [creates] incredible pictures.”
“Emma is very talented... she always makes me feel very comfortable when shooting. So I’m very excited to see what story we will create on set”
Summerton was also excited to shoot He Cong, who she previously photographed for Vogue China in 2018. Of her Pirelli shoot she says: “We had mirrors and we had... a little bird that was like the messenger. And what we talked about was [He Cong] bringing her beauty, but with that a message of kindness and empathy."
“She has a calmness about her... It’s kind of looking at the beauty, but seeing what’s underneath and going deeper. And she really embodies that and represents that.”
She has a calmness about her... It’s kind of looking at the beauty, but seeing what’s underneath and going deeper”
Costume director Amanda Harlech said she was guided by colour when selecting He Cong’s outfit. She described the look as “sexy, chic and very wonderland”, adding, “you can be anybody depending on what you’re dressed in”.
Shooting to success
He Cong never set out to be a model. Although she attended modelling classes while in high school, it was only because her parents wanted their 5ft 10.5in (1.78m) daughter to stand up straight.
Then, in 2013, after moving to Shanghai to study fashion and design, she attended an open call casting and was selected to walkin a Valentino show. She opened and closed the show and so began her modelling career.
Since then she has walked nearly every major fashion show, every season, for designers from Calvin Klein in New York, to Burberry in London, Bottega Veneta in Milan and Dior in Paris. During the 2017 Fall/Winter season she walked in 43 shows, the most of any model of colour, taking to the catwalk for the likes of Valentino, Fendi, Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Dior, Miu Miu and Stella McCartney.
Her career has taken her to the world’s fashion capitals and seen her featured in high-profile magazines such as Vogue in Italy, the Netherlands, Japanand China, as well as Chinese editions of L’Officiel and Harper’s Bazaar. Naturally shy, she has said modelling has helped her to broaden her horizons.
The power of people
He Cong described her father as her real-life muse because, she said, “he always tries his hardest to do things the best that he can. And he’s always very humble. Also, he takes care of everyone around him. I am just very inspired by him.”
Professionally, she learns from everyone she encounters. “Because people who I meet in my work [are] always so nice to me and teach me a lot, and take care of me, even today. Everyone is so nice and so kind. I’m very lucky to meet [such] people in my job.”
“People who I meet in my work [are] always so nice to me and teach me a lot, and take care of me”
HeCong, who said she spent much of the Covid pandemic lockdown learning from her mum (via phone) how to cook spicy food from Hunan, admitted that on a typical non-work day she is “actually a bit lazy”, waking up at noon and hanging out with friends, watching movies and reading. “Nothing special. I’m quite enjoying the normal life.”
With work, however, she remains wholly focused. “When I walk on the catwalk I’m thinking of nothing because I just want to focus on the runway and look straight and be serious and do my job. Because I feel like when I wear designers’ clothes I have to show the best of those clothes to people. So I think nothing just [that] I’m beautiful. I’m a strong woman. That’s what I think.”
And if she wasn’t a model, He Cong would be a teacher. “Being a teacher is always my dream... I think everyone’s childhood is very important. And… so that’s why I want to stay with them and be a good person near them and lead them to be better.”